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The Maiden of Brooklyn

Tablet Fiction: a haunting tale of sexual abuse among the Orthodox

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For thirty days following his wife’s death, Reb Berish abstained from trimming his fiery red beard, a personal vanity he privately indulged, but Rosalie Bavli, Tema’s mother, was, after all, his second wife; his first wife he had divorced on the day after the anniversary of their tenth year of marriage when she had still failed to produce an offspring of any flavor. The woman he took shortly afterward, the woman who became Tema’s mother, was nearly fifteen years his junior, in her early thirties at the most by his reckoning when she departed this world, they were almost of different generations not to mention different sexes.

On the shloshim after her death, following the prescribed thirty days of second-stage mourning, Reb Berish bared his throat to his trusted barber for a nice beard trim, commissioned a local synagogue hanger-on to say Kaddish during prayers three times a day over the duration of the eleven months’ mourning period for his late wife, Rosalie—Rachel-Leah Bavli—who had failed to plan ahead and leave a son qualified to perform this service in her behalf, and he let it be known to everyone in his circle as well as to professional matchmakers that he was now in the market for remarriage. He also threw himself even more intensely than ever into his business, which was prospering beyond his wildest dreams, providing the most highly regarded, strictest kosher certification to meats of all kinds based on his years of experience as a shokhet, a ritual slaughterer, now employing a sizable staff of authorized personnel, butchers and overseers, and branching out to a whole range of other food products in addition to meats. The Berel Bavli logo—the double-B seal of approval, evoking the two tablets of the Ten Commandments—was worth its weight in gold, a guarantee of the highest, most trustworthy level of supervision. Of course, by the time his second wife Rosalie passed away he no longer worked hands-on, so to speak, as a shokhet, but there is no doubt that the accumulation of years he had spent standing in pools of blood cutting the throats of cattle and sheep and fowl and inspecting their entrails gave him a realistic perspective on physical mortality that extended to humans in the image of God as well not excluding women—a perspective that could not be expected of a sheltered child such as Tema assigned to sit watch beside her freshly dead mother whose mouth hung open like a dog’s.

***

Even so, during that first year following the death, Reb Berish took sufficient heed of the trouble signs in his daughter that were being brought to his attention with increasing frequency, and based on the advice of his rabbi, the Oscwiecim Rebbe, he took Tema out of the neighborhood girls’ school, Beis Beinonis, which was considered slightly more to the permissive side, and transferred her to Beis Ziburis off Bedford Avenue in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, which was reputed to be a stricter institution that kept the girls rigorously focused on what was expected of them regardless of personal problems or life situations. Reb Berish banged on the door of Tema’s bedroom one morning after he had tried to open it by turning the knob, which was how he discovered that she had installed a lock to carry out her mortifications in private, and informed her that he would be driving her to her new school in half an hour, after which she would be going there and back on her own on the subway—which was how Tema discovered that she would be switching schools.

It was also during that year before the stone was unveiled over the grave plot that Reb Berish married again without informing Tema of his intentions or even that he had been looking much less found a bride. A small, private ceremony, without music of course out of respect for the recently deceased, was held in the living room of the Oswiecim Rebbe, who officiated under a tablecloth held overhead as a huppa canopy by four old Jews dragged in from the street along with their folding shopping carts. Afterward, the rebbe’s wife pushed aside the great maroon volumes of Talmud and other books of law on the long dining room table where her husband usually presided and served some schnapps in little fluted paper cups and slices of sponge cake on napkins, and, as a special treat, because it was she who had been the successful arranger of this match, a plate of herring, each piece skewered with a toothpick topped with a brightly colored decorative cellophane frill.

Naturally, Tema was not present on that occasion. She met the new wife the next morning after her father had already gone off to shul for prayers and then onward to his business when there was a knock on her door in the wake of a tread that she could tell was not his. Tema opened the door to a woman in a pink chenille bathrobe who inquired with a heavy Eastern European accent where the linen closet was located. She needed to change the bedsheets.

***

Her name was Frumie Klein, she was seventeen years old, and Tema recognized her instantly as one of the older girls from Beis Beinonis known collectively as the “refugees” who were coming into the high school during that period from a black hole referred to as “over there,” where terrible but not surprising things were happening to the Jewish people too shameful to talk about but which everyone accepted in the cosmic scheme as predictable and no doubt deserved punishment for our sins against the Master of the Universe acting through his evil agent, Adolf Hitler, may his name and memory be blotted out. Frumie, originally from a cosmopolitan, secular Budapest family where she had been known as Felicia, was a silent, gaunt girl of fifteen when she arrived from a displaced persons camp aboard an American troopship setting sail from Bremerhaven and was collected at the dock in New York City by distant ultra-Orthodox Boro Park relatives who regarded it as a great mitzvah that could only redound to their credit in the divine ledger to take in such an orphan, may such misfortunes as befell this poor girl never befall any of us.

Over the ensuing two years Frumie occupied herself with eating steadily mostly in secret and with stealing small change from her host family in order to buy facial creams and lotions from the drugstore to cope with a devastating case of acne, a mask of pus pimples and inflamed sores that all the ladies sitting in the balcony of the synagogue remarked was so unusual in Hungarian women, universally acclaimed for their flawless complexions and for the skincare secrets they possessed, which produced legendary cosmetics magnates female by sex and Jewish by race.

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Shmooster says:

This story consists essentially of the author venting her bile, expressing her hostility to observant Judaism, and, presumably, getting herself off thereby. Yes, sexual abuse is a problem in the Orthodox community, as it is in virtually every community. This piece adds nothing of value to the meaningful dialogue now going on within the community itself, and it is full of caricatures. All that’s missing is the hole in the sheet.

muddled and depressing. really, not only is the subject dark & disturbed; the writing is unclear and rambling, rather like listening to a dementia patient.

ClooJew says:

Is this writer actually Orthodox? “Forty days you would have to fast”? No one Orthodox actually talks like that anymore. Why does every young, Jewish writer think he/she’s Isaac Bashevis Singer. Besides it’s not even accurate. You don’t fast for misusing a Chumash.

Ach, what’s the point in complaining, though. I agree with the first two comments.

Shmooster says:

Sorry to disappoint, Cloo, but Tova Reich is not by any stretch a “young” writer. (Good luck finding any biographical information on her.)

I’d like to take this opportunity to throw a question out there: Anybody know of an instance where Orthodox Jews have left the face of the deceased uncovered before burial (aside from during the taharah, of course)? How about the body being left on a bed, as opposed to being placed, covered, on the floor? No? Me neither.

I found this interesting but largely unreadable. Is there an editor in the house?

herbcaen says:

It would be interesting to write a companion story about sexual abuse in a reform family, or a non-Jewish family, I guess not-it is too commonplace

reader says:

“presumably, getting herself off thereby”: the decision to write about rape is not an invitation to verbal abuse. Please participate in more of that meaningful dialogue.

Shmooster says:

I can discern no motivation for writing this story, if not to heap written abuse on Orthodox Judaism while indulging in some really disturbing fantasies, sexual and otherwise. The most serious problem is that those not particularly knowledgeable will read the author’s portrayal of Orthodoxy and mistakenly assume that it is accurate.

For a novel that has contributed in a meaningful way to the dialogue about sexual abuse in the Orthodox community, read “Hush,” by Eishes Chayil.

For more biographical information on Tova Reich, please refer to her profile at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, where she was a Fellow last year: http://www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/people/tova-reich

From that profile: “Tova Reich is the author of My Holocaust: A Novel (HarperCollins, 2007),The Jewish War: A Novel (Pantheon Books, 1995), Master of the Return(Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988), and Mara: A Novel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978). Her stories have appeared in AGNI, the Atlantic,Commentary, Conjunctions, Harper’s Magazine, and elsewhere and have been included in several anthologies. She has contributed essays and book reviews to the New Leader, the New Republic, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wilson Quarterly, and other publications. … Among the prizes she has received for her writing are the Edward Lewis Wallant Book Award and the National Magazine Award for fiction.”

Shmooster says:

Yes, that is her literary biography, and that’s all you’ll find. When and where was she born? Where has she lived? Was she ever married? Children? How was she raised? (It is clear from her photo that she’s not what one would call a “young Jewish writer.”)

I agree that the story is very disturbing but it is well written. Its a long time since I read Singer and I agree that its in his style.

This seems relevant http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/27/books/review/Margolick-t.html?pagewanted=all

It does seem that Ms Reich’s writing is intended to be disturbing and is aimed at a radical, rather than a particularly Jewish audience.

Natan79 says:

No it’s not. Reform dudes are not as sex-crazed and sex-repressed as the Orthodox. The Orthodox have the sexual repression found in Arab countries.

Shmooster says:

Thanks for the pop psychology. Natan79 . . .

Shmooster says:

As you can see from other comments, Jonathan, reasonable people can differ on whether the piece is well written.

Point taken regarding her Holocaust book. I think it’s clear that, among other things, she’s looking to be provocative and to piss people off. Sarah Silverman does that, too — but when she does it, it’s actually funny (sometimes, at least).

On the other hand, Reich’s depiction of Rabbi Schmeltzer and his actions could have been written by Julius Streicher.

Yes, its a cheap way to score points.

Baba_Metzia says:

It’s very sad that you are not able to afford your Thorazine.

ripping apart the motivations of a woman who is writing about her trauma- reveals very petty and cruel motivation on your part. Honestly-how insecure are you that you will tear down a woman that has been through so much? I want to see what happens to her and how she deals with this. Attempting to discrediting a rape victim? Classy. Really classy

rosa99@walla.com says:

to ms. reich, please redirect your verbal output to the toilet. that is where excrement belongs. or buried in the dirt outside the encampment by hand with a small shovel. feh.

Shmooster says:

Does the author say somewhere that this story is about her own trauma? If she does, please point it out.

Natan79 says:

I think you’re an idiot. Tova Reich is a real writer. It probably bothers you that she exposes Orthodox sexual abuse.

Natan79 says:

Not at all. I met people like that in Israel. They lectured me on how to be a jew while I was a soldier and they refused to be, You see, they had holy things to do.

Natan79 says:

It’s very sad that you are an authoritarian imbecile, shithead.

Natan79 says:

It’s not pop psychology. Direct observation.

Natan79 says:

Yeah, it must be tough to read about sexual abuse. Better to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Natan79 says:

Asking Shmooster for meaningful dialogue is like asking a pig to play the violin.

Shmooster says:

Whoa! Sure did not see THAT coming! So how many times in all were you raped by these rabbis?

Shmooster says:

Thanks for saving me the time of making you look foolish in public. You’re doing a fine job on your own. Carry on!

Shmooster says:

Such a comfort to know there are mature people like you defending the country, Natan79.

Yes, we have some rabbis like that here in Brooklyn. They build phony school dormitories to evade zoning regulations, they run horrible nursing homes, and they participate in rackets. Holy as Hell!

Sometimes they even get caught. Not often enough.

I just bought her book. Jewish radical, me. Lived briefly in Israel as a child. They threw rocks if you drove on Shabbat.

She was born in 1942 in the US. Her family were from a long line of rabbis on both sides. She married and has 3 children. She has written a lot during her long life. Here is the link: http://books.google.com/books?id=X3HN2tYhR0cC&pg=PA305&lpg=PA305&dq=tova+reich+biography&source=bl&ots=0QqGhjpfT_&sig=8Q6RhyE8qmjxuItOkjKCypjQKas&hl=en&sa=X&ei=TameUfDtDvW84AORq4DIBw&ved=0CDAQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=tova%20reich%20biography&f=false

Shmooster says:

Thanks much for posting that link. Interesting reading. I wonder why the information is so hard to find (I gave it my best shot on Google).

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The Maiden of Brooklyn

Tablet Fiction: a haunting tale of sexual abuse among the Orthodox